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Aspiring doctors introduce preschoolers to yoga

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Tori Rodgers, a second-year medical student and co-president of the Pediatrics Interest Group, teaches yoga at the daycare on VCU's MCV Campus. (Photos by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

It’s Friday afternoon at VCU Health’s MCV Campus daycare. The preschoolers are waking up from their naps, eager to tackle the afternoon. They peek through the windows on their classroom doors when they spot a group of medical students in the hallway.

In groups of six to eight, the preschoolers make their way to the hall to participate in Yoga for Preschoolers, a collaborative initiative created by the VCU School of Medicine’s Pediatrics Interest Group and YogaRx student group.

“Find your lily pad,” says second-year medical student Tori Rodgers as she directs the children to their yoga mats.

Yoga for toddlers

Yoga for Preschoolers

In fall 2016, Rodgers, co-president of the Pediatrics Interest Group, reached out to her classmates in YogaRx to develop a partnership. A devotee of yoga, Rodgers wanted to bring the practice to children in local daycare centers throughout Richmond.

Second-year medical student and YogaRx President Victoria Keiser was ready to participate. A certified yoga teacher who completed a 200-hour training course in May 2016, Keiser started YogaRx as a way to bring stress relief to medical students and was eager to expand the group’s reach into the community. Yoga for Preschoolers was born.

“It’s fun working together to make a curriculum for kids and adapting it so kids understand it,” Rodgers said. “It’s interesting to see the kids’ progress. They just soak up everything we give them.”

Developing a yoga curriculum for preschoolers means trading standard yoga terms for kid-speak. Downward dog becomes breathing like a lion. Lying on bellies and stretching becomes hissing like snakes and looking up to see if there’s any danger.

“I see a fire-breathing dragon!” Rodgers says to the preschoolers. The group squeals.

Like any good medical student, Rodgers works in some basic knowledge about the body throughout the session. She explains that the heart pumps blood as the children put their hands over their hearts to feel the beat, and that lungs are for breathing oxygen as they practice taking slow breaths.

 

A stress reliever for medical students

Photos by Kevin Morley, University Marketing
Click to view slideshow. Photos by Kevin Morley, University Marketing

Keiser also teaches geriatric yoga once a month through YogaRx. She said she enjoys introducing yoga at both ends of the age spectrum.

“It’s rewarding to teach any population but even more rewarding to teach kids,” she said. “We hope that they’ll go back home and talk about what they’ve learned, improving their family’s health, too.”

MCV campus daycare Director Tracy Walters said the sessions provide an uplifting way to end the day for the preschoolers.

“Yoga brings another level to staying healthy physically and brings in mental health as well,” she said. “It’s a release for them — some children are here 12, 14 hours a day. It’s a big benefit for families who don’t always have built-in time to take them to a lesson.”

Ananda Amstadter, Ph.D., sends her 2-year-old son to the daycare, where he participates in the yoga classes. A researcher and associate professor at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, she said she sees the benefits for the medical students, too.

“It’s good for the students to work with little humans and de-stress, get some of that toddler energy,” she said.

Keiser’s medical interests lean toward internal medicine rather than pediatrics, but she said the experience working with children outside the doctor’s office has helped prepare her for pediatric rotations and what to expect from her youngest patients.

“They may take something completely differently than the way you meant it, and you just have to go with it,” she said. “If you keep that mentality, it’s less intimidating when we do work with kids down the road and it will make it more fun.”

Walters said it’s good for the students to see from an early point in their careers that every child is different and giving thought to your approach is so important because you “make it or break it” with a child in those first interactions.

 

Namaste

Zachary Pottanat and Tori Rodgers, co-presidents of the Pediatrics Interest Group, show the children a pose.
Zachary Pottanat and Tori Rodgers, co-presidents of the Pediatrics Interest Group, show the children a pose.

As the yoga session winds down, the wiggly students who came into the hallway are now lying still on their “lily pads,” relaxing. Rodgers ends the class with the traditional yoga salutation, “Namaste,” before the preschoolers head back into their classrooms.

The medical students seem more relaxed, too, as they gather by the door and chat about an upcoming exam on Monday. When asked what they would be doing on a typical Friday afternoon if they weren’t with the preschoolers, they all answer in unison: “studying.”

That makes their commitment to the monthly sessions all the more impressive, Walters said.

“For our parents, because many of them have been medical students themselves, they know the demands and find particular delight in the students sharing their time and talent with their children,” she said. “It’s been a real gift.”

Susan R. DiGiovanni, M.D., senior associate dean for medical education and student affairs, sees the benefit, too. “This a great learning experience for the students as well as a way to de-stress,” she said. “You cannot stress over exams when you are giggling with a toddler!”

Medical student Celeste Pilato works with a child during yoga class.
Medical student Celeste Pilato works with a child during yoga class.